Sat, 09 Nov 2013 Nigeria

Hijab: Persecuting Nigerian Muslim Women

By Disu Kamor, Executive Chairman Muslim Public Affairs Centre, MPAC Nigeria
Hijab: Persecuting Nigerian Muslim Women

A Nigerian Muslim girl recently made a record which reserved a place for her among “The World's 50 Smartest Teenagers”. Saheela Ibraheem, only 16, made it to headlines earlier this year when she was accepted into Harvard University, making her one of the youngest students ever to attend that school, and a rising talent. Saheela was also accepted at 13 other colleges, including prestigious MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.

This rockstar genius uses the Muslim head covering, hijab, to school and attended a public secondary school, Conackamack Middle School in Piscataway for most of her high school studies. Absurdly, if Saheela had transferred to Nigeria to complete her secondary school education in a public school in Lagos State during the same period, she would have been denied access to education based only on the fact that she wears a head cover. Something that did not matter to the school authority at Conackamack Middle and other educational institution she attended.

At a special press briefing in Ikeja on Tuesday 14th of May, 2013, the Lagos State Commissioner for Education Mrs. Olayinka Oladunjoye trashed the religious and civic rights of all Muslim pupils in Lagos State public schools when she declared that that “usage of hijab and other religious materials in public schools was against government's policy”.

This shocking declaration was made on the heels of very ugly incidents in some public schools in Lagos state where school heads had punished and humiliated pupils who came to school in hijab. The social impact of the discriminatory policy that the Lagos State Commissioner for Education championed was, according to her recommendation, to see Muslim parents relocate their kids to Muslim-only schools leading to segregation and exclusion- and invariably teaching impressionable kids intolerance.

This type of policy where pupils are forced to remove their hijab in order to have access to education are exactly how bigotry is taught within our educational institutions when certain kids are made to feel “different” and others are taught, indirectly, that it's OK to exclude such kids. Apparently, these are actions and statements that are antithetical to the democratic ideals of inclusion, equality and diversity.

A few weeks ago, Ambassador Olatokunboh Kamson of the Nigerian High Commission in Jamaica publicly humiliated a Muslim sister who was attending a monthly meeting of Nigerians resident in Jamaica under the aegis of Association of Nigerians in Jamaica (ANJ). During a normal introductory session at the meeting, Ambassador Kamson openly called the victim (a Muslim sister in hijab) "egungun' (meaning: masquerade) as she stood up to introduce herself ).

It is obvious that the High Commissioner did not consider the impact of his ranting on the victim, the offense caused to the Muslim community and the religion of Islam that he holds in low esteem. Ambassador Olatokunboh Kamson has a track record of insensitive, inappropriate outbursts that have verged on Islamophobia. He is known to be clearly out of his depth not only in the way he thinks of the Muslims but also in his antipathy towards them.

Obviously, Ambassador Olatokunboh, with his stinging words, does not seem to realise that millions of Muslim women in hijab contribute actively to the progress of the country, they are taxpayers who contribute towards the cost of maintaining him in his position and champions of values that earn Nigerian respect outside the country (whatever is left of that!).

A week after the bizarre incident in Jamaica, another Muslim sister in hijab was denied services at the Nigerian embassy in Washington because she refused to expose her ears for the biometric identification of the international passport process. A senior immigration officer who intervened insisted a new Nigerian law prohibiting the covering of ears for Muslims in hijab must be enforced.

Such unnecessary and unlawful conditions have become an excuse used by Islamphobes and bigots to push their own agenda under the cover of official rule, and bubbling discrimination against the Muslims either by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), anti-hijab employers or NYSC is spreading at an amazing pace.

One wonders if Catholic nuns are ordered to remove their habit to take pictures for passport, driver's licensing office (Federal Road Safety Commission), the Integrated Payroll Salary System of the Accountant General Office or the national ID card- or is this just a “Muslim thing”?

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) passport standards, which the new machine readable Nigerian passport complies to, unequivocally allow the use of hijab (including the covering of the ears). These two cases are only symptomatic of a much wider and worsening challenge that confronts Muslim Nigerians in addition to those faced by all Nigerians.

Freedom of religion is firmly entrenched in international law and the constitutions of countries around the world, including the Nigerian Constitution. Sections 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976) guarantee everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief in practice and observance.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has emphasized that this freedom encompasses the right to wear religiously distinctive clothing or head coverings. Finally, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) guarantees the freedom to practise one's religion and belief, and freedom from discrimination based on that religion or belief.

Section 38 (1) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution guarantees this right to practice and observance of religions where it states that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

Section 42 (1) clearly spells it out that no citizen shall be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to any form of disabilities or restrictions by reason of belonging to a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex.

At its core, freedom of religion encompasses both a positive dimension – freedom to believe and to manifest one's religion; and a negative dimension – no one can be forced, directly or indirectly, to recognize a particular religion or to act contrary to what he or she believes. Hopefully, different governments will take important lessons and back down from transgressing against the rights of pupils under their care.

For the sake of clarity, Islam prescribes that both men and women behave and dress modestly. In the case of Muslim women, they are religiously obligated to wear the hijab as part of their everyday dressing, once outside of the house. There are a number of ways in which Muslim men and women express such teachings and rather than face discriminations and harassment, these women should be treated and valued equally as other citizens.

As the President's most senior official in Jamaica, President Goodluck Jonathan must hold Ambassador Kamson accountable for his reckless, offensive and unacceptable remarks and denigration of the Islamic culture during an official event. His grotesque action is a disgrace to the exalted position he holds. While the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs must secure the rights of dignity which the ambassador and the immigration are taking away from their victims, our law-makers should move protect citizens and secure their right to equal treatment.

Inaction or silence from official quarters on these cases will be siding with the oppressors against the victims, and play into the hands of bigots and Islamophobes. Finally, it is important for all Nigerians to strive for a Nigeria that cherishes all its people equally. As we work across faith and ethnic divides on other important national issues, it is equally important to show collective will to build a country where justice carries no price tag.